Night Shift: A unique, thoughtful documentary on coming out of the shadows of everyday oppression

The writer talks about the documentary, Raat: Night in Small Town India
Night Shift: A unique, thoughtful documentary on coming out of the shadows of everyday oppression

It all started on a cold November morning in Delhi last year when a group of participants in the feminist thinktank The Third Eye’s Learning Lab—an arts-based pedagogical platform—were asked two simple questions: What is it that you can see at night? What is it that happens at night that reveals something new to you about where you live? The attendees, from seven districts in Uttar Pradesh (Banda, Lalitpur, Lucknow), Jharkhand (Pakur) and Rajasthan (Ajmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur), replied with words like silence, mouse, cricket, dogs, anxiety, clock, snores, bulbs, light, etc. The next task assigned to them was to step out of their homes and record the nighttime experiences in public spaces in their small towns. What does the night reveal? What is concealed in its darkness? What gets overlooked and undocumented? Who can be seen outside at night? Who is not? How does the night make them feel?

A year down the line that exercise has taken the shape of a unique, thoughtful documentary called Raat: Night in Small Town India which, after its premiere at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), was recently screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival where it bagged the Film Critics Guild’s Gender Sensitivity award.

Raat was not intended to be a film initially. Filmmaking is more formal. This was a learning experience than film production,” explains the project mentor and co-producer Ruchika Negi. It was one of the Learning Lab’s co-creative processes with which to make the community discover and document everyday life from a feminist lens, using conversations as the medium of learning; image, sound, and text as forms of expression and digital technology (mobile phone cameras or Zoom) as the tool. The feminist lens is not just gender-focused but more a study of power—where does power lie, who carries it, and who can be an enabler? 

A still from <em>Raat</em>
A still from Raat

The participants, called digital educators, are picked through the network of various community-based, grassroots organisations in the three states and cut across age groups, caste, gender, and religion. “It’s not an arts school. We are not creating artists out of them. It’s about getting their rich narrative out. We recognize the strength of the narrative,” says Negi. 

To a privileged, urban person it might immediately bring to mind movements like #WhyLoiter and “Reclaim the Night” which have been about women staking a claim on public spaces. However, this is more.

The participants enquire into their own self, their locations, and spaces, discover and express themselves, gaze at the world in newer ways, question the systems of knowledge that shape them, and in the process, try to invert the existent hierarchies. “How do you challenge who tells the story and about whom? Who makes the images?... It’s a reflection on who you are, your own auteurship... going inwards to go outwards,” explains Shabani Hassanwalia, Editor in Chief of The Third Eye and a co-producer of the film. They are mentored by documentary filmmakers, image makers, podcasters, feminist researchers and activists. 

The 34-minute film is a collaborative effort of fourteen people, ten women and four men—Arti Ahirwar, Ashraf Hussain, Rajkumari Ahirwar, Vikas Khatri, Tabassum Ansari, Kulsum Khatoon, Khushi Bano, Parmeshwar Mandrawaliya, Santra Chaurthiya, Rajkumari Prajapati, Manisha Chanda, Anita Sen, Rani Devi and Ajfarul Shaikh. They show us an assortment of images—from traffic jam to stray dogs to candy floss-selling kids—and take us to a variety of locations—homes, kitchens, markets, flour mills, railway crossings, stone-crushing factory, alcohol shops, etc... 

A still from Raat
A still from Raat

In visually recording the night, some look outward at the world and question women’s place in it. How, only men can warm themselves up around the fire? How even at night, women must work hard without quite getting acknowledged for it, while the men watch on, lying down and relaxing on the bed. “Who says women can’t handle machines?” questions Chhoti Rajkumari, aka Rajkumari Ahirwar from UP, as she captures one toiling away at the flour mill.

With no electricity during the day, the mill must be run at night; it’s the same for the stone-crushing factory captured by Ashraf Hussain and Ajfarul Shaikh. They also talk about how, after being hit hard by demonetisation, small businesses have had to shut during the lockdown.

Others dwell on the feeling of evil and danger that night often signals, making the act of filming an inward-looking process. “It was about pushing the boundaries of oneself to step out and ‘look’, ‘work’, ‘create’,” says a Learning Lab note. 

Some look at their own immediate situation, being questioned by their fathers, husbands, and neighbours about going out at night to work and negotiating with them. Vikas Khatri of Jodhpur had to do the night shoot with co-worker Manisha Chanda. “I was worried about what people might think about us going out together to work at night. So, four-five people from the office joined us for the shoot,” he says. 

Yet others confront their inner fears and anxieties and document their journey through it, commuting back home from work, in crowded buses, surrounded by men. 

A still from Raat
A still from Raat

It’s interesting to see how a young girl shoots the alcohol shop while hiding in the dark, but an older Rajkumari Prajapati, aka Badi Rajkumari, is out there, trying to zoom in on the faces of the drunk. The situation gets confrontational and tense even as she manages to stay calm through it. “I was alone. There was fear but the camera gave me strength. I was not interviewing anyone specific. I was just capturing the scene on camera. My concern was to shoot, somehow, even if I had to change the shooting spot. I knew that if I stopped the camera, I wouldn’t be able to come back and shoot,” recalls Badi Rajkumari.

For most women in the group stepping out at night itself was out of the question. But the fact that they had to shoot only at night teased out a certain mobility that was disallowed to them. “They spoke about how odd and free they felt roaming around on their streets in darkness because the camera and tripod justified it and lent a certain power to their presence,” states a Learning Lab note. “It’s not about the camera empowering you. You empower yourself. Camera is the tool through which you claim freedom,” says Negi. 

The most heartening takeaway is the admission of the sense of joy and liberation that the act of filming brought to them. A moment that helped them transcend fear. “It’s a moment that is mine and I am enjoying it,” says one of them in the film. “It was hugely significant. Something changed for them. They got confident, could understand what they could be able to do,” says Negi. 

Extensive individual mentoring and discussions pushed the ideas further. For instance, for women in Meharoni (Badi Rajkumari, Choti Rajkumari and Arti), venturing out at night in itself was an adventure, but how to shoot in public was a bigger concern. How to not draw too much attention to oneself? What happens if you shoot from far? “These kinds of exchanges are not just to ‘tackle’ a shooting situation. It is to go deeper into our own understanding of how our own centering can directly impact the narratives we create. The reasons behind our discomforts - tactile and conceptual, as well as historic (because of our gender, caste, and religious locations) need unpacking so that we can ‘see’ and frame clearly, within our own skin,” says Learning Lab.

A still from<em> Raat</em>
A still from Raat

Eventually, the extensive footage reflected their comforts, discomforts, as well as quiet resistance. “We were surprised at how beautiful the footage was. What nighttime allowed them to do, how they could go deeper into themselves,” says Hassanwalia. 

It was structured and shaped into a film by editor Abhinava Bhattacharya with the community’s input. More than arriving at a film, for the Learning Lab, Raat has been a process of understanding and internalising time, and the act of claiming it for oneself, is what they regard as a political act. They are working on a similar project next with the theme of caste in focus.

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